Muslim community groups have responded angrily to a government letter that urged British Imams and mosque officials to challenge "men of hate" who preach extremism.
The letter -- written by Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and Lord Tariq Ahmad -- was sent to mosques all over the country:
"We must show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them. We must show them that there are other ways to express disagreement: that their right to do so is dependent on the very freedoms that extremists seek to destroy. We must show them the multitude of statements of condemnation from British Muslims; show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship, and that they do not speak for Muslims in Britain or anywhere in the world."
In response, Muslim community groups described the letter as "patronising."
Harun Khan, the Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain [MCB], told the media that "We will be writing to Mr Eric Pickles to ask that he clarifies his request to Muslims to 'explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity'. Is Mr Pickles seriously suggesting, as do members of the far right, that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society?"
As public letters go, though, that sent by Lord Ahmad and Eric Pickles seems fairly benign. It repeated the old mantra that "Islam is peace;" it named no particular organizations, Islamist networks or particular preachers; and it was sent indiscriminately around the country to mosques belonging to all sorts of different sects and branches of Islam.
The response of particular Muslim groups, however, seems cause for concern.
Many groups presented by the media as "representatives of British Muslims" are actually part of established British Islamist networks, with a long history of promoting extremism.
The Muslim Council of Britain, for example, which is leading the backlash against the government's letter, has been explicitly linked, in a government report, to Jamaat-e-Islami, a South Asian Islamist movement that committed acts of genocide during Bangladesh's 1971 Liberation War.
In 2009, the then Labour Government cut ties with the MCB after some of its officials were found to be signatories to the Istanbul Declaration, a document that advocates attacks on British troops as well as on Jewish communities. Since then, although the MCB has attempted to shore up its moderate credentials, it is still accused of links to extremist activity.
Harun Khan, for instance, an MCB official quoted by the Daily Telegraph as an opponent of the government's letter to mosques, is a trustee of the Redbridge Islamic Centre, of which the current Imam, Shaqur Rahman, also works for the Muslim Research and Development Foundation [MRDF]. The MRDF happens to be an extreme Salafist group, run by Haitham Al-Haddad, a preacher who describes Jews as "apes and pigs."
Redbridge's Imam Shaqur Rahman is also a "senior lecturer" at the Tayyibun Institute, named in a confidential government report as one of several "institutions that still tolerate or promote non-violent extremism."
The previous Imam of Redbridge mosque, Shakeel Begg, describes jihad as the "greatest of deeds." Further, Al Jazeera reported in February 2014 that, "[Redbridge] mosque officials had been regularly visited by Prevent officers voicing concerns about invited speakers and other events."
It would seem that the MCB has little justification for objecting to the government's letter on factual grounds.
Other Islamists who condemned the government's letter and were given media coverage include Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation. Mohammed Shafiq also works for the Ummah Channel, an Islamic television station censured in 2010 for broadcasting calls for the killing of Ahmaddiya Muslims.
In addition, members of the Ramadhan Foundation's advisory board have included Abdullah Hakim Quick, an Islamist preacher who has called upon God to "clean and purify al-Aqsa from the filth of the Yahood [Jews];" and Jamal Badawi, an American Muslim Brotherhood activist who advocates the right of men to beat their wives and was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the terror-financing trial of the Holy Land Foundation in 2007.
Groups such as the MCB and the Ramadhan Foundation are not voices for victimized Muslims or exploited mosques; rather, they seem to be defenders of the very extremists that the government's letter called upon British Muslims to reject.
How, then, do such groups manage to portray themselves as "leaders of the Muslim community"?
Britain's Muslim community is complicatedly diverse. Although Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood control prominent "leadership" groups such as the MCB, and are featured almost exclusively within the media as voices for "the Muslim community," these networks only manage 3.4% of Britain's mosques. A survey from 2007, in fact, revealed that 94% of British Muslims do not believe that the Muslim Council of Britain represents their views.
That these Islamist networks have achieved such prominence is largely a result of exorbitant financing and organizational abilities. For decades, the flow of public money into religious communities has allowed extremists to proclaim themselves as unchallenged leaders of "the Muslim community." Security analyst Lorenzo Vidino has written:
"The British multicultural model has traditionally relied heavily on community leaders who act as trusted intermediaries between the community and the state, to whom the latter can delegate the administration of various services. No such class existed among the masses of poorly educated South Asian immigrants in postwar Britain. The situation created the opportunity for the Mawdudists [Jamaat-e-Islami], thanks to their superior resources, organizational skills and good understanding of the British political system to surpass other groups in the competition for the role of community leaders."
Brotherhood and Mawdudist groups have also forged powerful partnerships with politicians and public officials. They provide a cover of legitimacy to Islamist networks, with which other, non-extremist, less-well-organized Muslim groups are unable to compete.
Although the government claimed, as mentioned earlier, to terminate its relationship with the MCB in 2009, successive government departments have continued to collaborate. The Ministry of Defence, for instance, uses the MCB as the sponsoring and accrediting body for all Muslim chaplains serving in Britain's armed forces. The MCB also provides chaplains for publicly-funded hospitals and prisons. In addition, the Department for Communities and Local Government continues to fund interfaith organizations, such as the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, of which the MCB is a prominent member.
Extremist groups such as the MCB also rely on high-profile interfaith events with groups in the Jewish community to display as evidence of their moderation. After the recent murders in Paris, for instance, the MCB organized an event with the Jewish Board of Deputies. MCB officials were flanked by Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies, and Rabbi Laura Janner-Klauser, Senior Rabbi of Reform Judaism.
MCB figures at the same event included Iqbal Sacranie, a leading British Islamist who has said of author Salman Rushdie that, "Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him." Sacranie is also a trustee of iEngage, an Islamist pressure group that lobbied the government to establish relations with the Hamas terror group. iEngage has also harassed Muslim human rights activists who oppose Islamist extremism.
It is not clear why some members of the Jewish community choose to offer support to extreme Islamist networks rather than to work with moderate Muslims. But the effect is to provide the MCB with legitimacy and good PR. Islamist groups can justify their opposition to counter-extremism efforts by claiming to have the backing of politicians, a phantom Muslim demographic that they claim to represent, and senior figures within the Jewish community.
Any remnants of British public money still finding its way into the pockets of Islamist groups needs to be stopped. Perhaps, to discover and start backing the true Muslim allies in the fight against extremism, groups such as the MCB should be actively opposed. Perhaps the media could abstain from describing the MCB as "disappointing" and "too thin-skinned," and instead just dismiss such groups as ill-disposed extremists, whose comments on government counter-extremism policy serve no one but the Islamist preachers and the lobby groups they represent.
The government's letter was an important step. Although some analysts claim that radicalization is at its most toxic on the Internet, the Quilliam Foundation, a Muslim counter-extremism think tank, has concluded that, "the vast majority of radicalised individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialisation prior to being further indoctrinated online."
If Islamist preachers can be barred from entering the country, if networks of charities and financial support for Islamist groups can be shut down, and if genuinely moderate Muslims can become partners to counter-extremism efforts -- replacing "entryist" groups such as the MCB -- then there is a chance that Britain can seriously slow down both the corrosive effects of Islamist extremism and the radicalization of its Muslim youth.